Review: The Leper Dreams of Snow by Sean Corbin (reviewed by Charles Rammelkamp)

The Leper Dreams of Snow
By Sean Corbin
Finishing Line Press, 2018
$13.99, 30 pages
ISBN: 978-1-63534-650-3

The leper is the original outcast, the first pariah. This gives us a clue to the protagonist of this sequence of poems, alienated, an outsider, melancholy: lepsive. In poem after poem, we encounter a voice that longs to belong but feels forever staring at reality with his nose pressed to the glass. The paradox is that this leper is likeable and we identify with him; he is sympathetic. We are introduced to the leper in the initial poems, “Wanting to Help,” “The Leper Loves,” and “Skin,” where we read the lines: “I want // to love like a leper like love is falling off of me / like love is tearing me apart….” The leper – the voice of these poems – longs to be a part of the fabric of the world. Who hasn’t felt this way?

In “The Leper Watches The Elephant Man,” we get a sense of how the narrator feels about himself. He strongly identifies with David Merrick, the man who was exhibited at freak shows under the sobriquet. “…twisted and gnarled as his face is / I see my own in the shine of his humps his / boiling forehead his curdled bones….”

Without actually pinpointing a source of his existential angst, we gradually become aware that the leper, the protagonist of these poems, has certain medical conditions that make his life so fragile. “Sneaking a Cheeseburger” provides the first hint. After all, where’s the guilt in eating junk food? Yet we read of “the strange skip in my chest” and “all the while my liver expresses / disbelief at yet another disrespect.” The leper has a heart condition, high blood pressure, for which he takes prescribed medications. His wife is aware of all this and when she finds the empty cheeseburger wrapper she scolds him. He feigns innocence, “ashamed of my betrayal.”

The leper feels like a failure as a father. In “The Leper’s Son” he remembers with regret not “defending him when his cousin was being / mean not making things equal not caring // for his heart the way I want mine to be….” Again, we have the reference to his medical condition, but he is also speaking of “the heart” in its metaphorical sense. In “Mowing the Yard” we get more of this. For one thing, it may not be wise to put the strain on his heart that pushing a lawn mower in the summer entails, but also, “my sons stand at the front window / learning every way to not mow to not mangle their future // yards.” On the page, the thought is “not mangling their future” and then after the long pause of a stanza break comes “yards.” How inadequate the leper perceives himself, without too much breast-beating but a real depth of melancholy. He reflects, “for all the blue pills and pink // pills and white pills that I pop each day I haven’t / found the one that treats Failing Father’s disease….”

There are poems titled “The Leper’s Approach to Graduate School,” “The Leper Celebrates His Wife’s Raise,” “The Leper Dreams of the Ocean,” “The Leper Considers Sunday Mornings,” “The Leper Watches Curious George,” and others, but perhaps the most powerful, the one that gathers all of these themes of illness and failure and regret and longing is the one called “The Leper Hates”:

I hate how a nitroglycerin pill feels
beneath my tongue hate the way my
arm articulates itself with tremulous
tingling hate how my chest fills with
tension after a heavy meal or when
a stranger says Hello but not when
my blood pressure is in the two-hundreds
hate how doctors shrug in their scrubs
and say peripheral neuropathy which
is Latin for who fucking knows hate
checking my pulse every quarter hour
hate popping chalky cylinders twice
a day the blood pill the heartburn pill
the smile pill the don’t-be-an-asshole pill
hate the bottles of water hate the diet after
diet after changing diet hate the lack
of control hate feeling like the skin
of a helium balloon stretching more
and more farther and farther tighter
and tighter until I beg for a hemorrhage.

Yowza. One could argue that there is an implicit self-pity at work in the leper’s point-of-view, but that misses the mark. It’s rather a deeply honest assessment of his vulnerabilities, and the shrewd cleverness is on full display in asides like the “don’t-be-an-asshole pill” and the Latin translation of “peripheral neuropathy” and elsewhere. While The Leper Dreams of Snow is not political at all, there are also amusing assessments of Donald Trump. In “The Leper Burns His Mouth” he muses about “the orange man and his latest lack of humanity,” and in “The Leper Considers an Eclipse,” he observes, “there is a president setting precedent / for a renaissance of hate.”

The leper character could be a kissing cousin of the anonymous narrator of Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground, giving voice to his sense of alienation, a worthy and weirdly satisfying collection.Charles Rammelkamp

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